Life on a Space Station: Q&A With NASA's Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson

Peggy Whitson at International Space Station
Veteran NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson places her mission patch on the International Space Station during the Expedition 16 mission. (Image credit: NASA)

This month, the International Space Station hit the 10-year mark as an inhabited outpost in space. One person — NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson — has personally contributed quite a chunk of that total time, having logged more than a year in space over the course of two long-duration stints on the station.

NASA and 15 other countries began building the International Space Station in 1998 with module launches and construction, but it wasn't until Nov. 2, 2000, when the first crew — one American and two Russians — boarded the orbiting lab. Since then, the station has swelled in size and population. Today, the station's structure is as large as a football field, has enough living space as the inside of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet and supports rotating crews of six people. caught up with Whitson, who commanded the station's Expedition 16 crew and is currently the chief of the astronaut office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, to discuss the International Space Station's recent milestone and the future of human spaceflight: How does it feel to see this anniversary for the station?

Peggy Whitson: In some ways I think it's kind of incredible. It's miraculous to have had people on orbit for 10 years continuously. The International Space Station has grown dramatically since that first crew went aboard.

You know, we've survived things not working out exactly the way we would have liked, in terms of having the shuttles go down for a couple of years after the Columbia accident and before return to flight. But through all that we've managed to maintain human presence up there and to continue to grow and build the International Space Station now in its complete form.

And we're up to a crew of six now for a year and a half. It's really exciting that we're actually starting to take advantage of this orbiting laboratory for its real assets, and that's to get research done. Whether that's research on human beings, or on fluids, or on combustion, or you know, Earth observations of various types — it's all really exciting to be able to dedicate the amount of time and effort needed to do long-term studies up there. [Graphic: The International Space Station Inside and Out]

Q: Do you think the daily mode of an astronaut's life on the station now is much different than it was 10 years ago?

A: Yes, yes, it is. Initially, in the early stages it was primarily just assembly, getting the kinks out of the operating systems, making sure they worked the correct way. We were doing research early on — I mean, on my first expedition, it was a utilization mission — utilization is a term we use synonymously with doing more scientific investigations. So we had phases where we were doing more research. But the phases traded off with assembly as well.

With Columbia, once we got the shuttle flying again, we limited the number of shuttles we were flying and had to optimize for the assembly phase throughout the rest of the shuttle flights. So these last few shuttle flights were providing the consumables and up-mass and spares that we think we'll need that are easier to deliver on the orbiter.

Q: Do you have anything planned at the astronaut office to celebrate the anniversary?

A: Actually we're having, coincidentally, the astronaut reunion at the same time. So that'll be fun and interesting for us to be celebrating and getting together with all the folks, the former astronauts who've gone away into either space business or other business, and get back together with everyone and celebrate that history of 10 years of experience.

Q: How groundbreaking do you think the International Space Station is?

A: I would say that it's somewhat of a miracle that we were able to put this thing together from 16 different countries, when many of the pieces were never fit-checked on the ground. To be able to get all those pieces to fit together and integrate and communicate with each other, you know, the computer systems and everything, I think it's amazing that it's worked out as well as we thought it would. Or it's better than we could have hoped in many ways.

I think the legacy of the space station will be that we can do something this technically complex in an international way.

Q: Do you think the station has a long future ahead of it?

A: I see the space station as just beginning. We did get the bill signed that confirmed, you know, we will continue the space station at least through 2020 and I know that the heads of agencies are doing some studies to see how much beyond that we can extend the life of the different modules that make up the space station and the hardware. So I have hopes that we're not halfway through — we're less than halfway through. [Gallery: Building the International Space Station]

Q: What have we learned about working in space from the station?

A: Well, there're some interesting things we weren't quite expecting. For instance, feathering (twisting) the solar arrays when they're in eclipse to reduce the drag actually turns out to be something significant. We've learned how to just control the station with less requirements for thrusters based on a lot of different knowledge we've gained just from experience of flying the station for years.

In terms of the human body we've learned a lot about counter measures that are necessary to try to protect against bone loss. I think we're doing a lot better in that arena than we were when we first started. We're seeing improvements in crew members returning based on the exercise hardware. We've also been testing some bisphosphonates that minimize or reduce the amount of bone demineralization. We have hopes that those may also be alternative options.

So there's a whole gamut of things that I would consider operational learning points that we've gotten from the station.

Plus, there've been the basic science principles that have been understood better, or differently than we expected maybe is a better way of saying that, in that environment where there is no gravity.

Q: What are some of the hard parts for you of living in space?

A: It's a huge privilege to be up there and it's probably the most satisfying, gratifying job on a day-to-day basis because you know that everything you're doing is contributing to keeping the station alive, to keeping the program moving forward, you know. So when you're cleaning air vents with a vacuum cleaner or something you don't think of it as much as you would if you had to do that in your house, you wouldn't gripe about it quite as often.

It's obviously, you know, there's more drudgery than you might want to imagine. But at the same time, being able to say, 'Hey, what I'm doing is helping the station.' So I think there are fewer things like that that you get as tired of. Sure, everybody does, but there are fewer things like that.

If I had to pick one thing that I thought was the most difficult, after some point in time, the food gets pretty boring because you have a finite number of selections, and so that becomes old after a while. Our food folks have done a really great job of trying to improve the variety and the selection. On my first flight we only had an eight-day food cycle, and on my second flight we had a 16-day food cycle, so you know, that was dramatically improved. But it's still not the same as being able to go out and pick which restaurant you want to go eat at. So you run out of new choices after a while. That gets old.

But again, it's still a small price to be a part of that very special day-to-day operations on orbit.

Q: What are the most exciting parts of life in space?

A: I definitely think being able to look out the window is one of the most incredible experiences. On my first flight, I don't know if maybe it's a function of time, or if I was less stressed on my second flight, but just being able to tell what part of the planet we were flying over by the reflected light coming through the window — that was pretty special. To be able to say, 'Oh, we're flying over northern Africa now,' because of the warm peachy glow of the light coming through, that was really special. Just to admire the beauty of the planet. And take a little bit more time to just be in awe of it all.

Q: How do you think the upcoming retirement of the space shuttles next year is going to impact the station program?

A: Well, the shuttle retirement is obviously going to impact us. The up-mass capability of the shuttle is incredible compared to any other launching vehicle, so we'll have to compensate with many other smaller vehicles for up-mass.

The biggest problem that I anticipate we're going to have is getting down-mass, which is important for some types of investigations. So I think we're going to have to get really creative or come up with other alternatives so we can get some capability to bring things home so we can either get research results back that we need. Obviously, there's a lot of stuff we can do with data electronically, but there are some things that you actually need a physical sample for. And so I think that's going to be a factor for some types of investigations.

But there are some ideas out there for how they can modify or develop capabilities that would actually return samples and hardware if we need it. I know some folks are going to be looking into that.

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Clara Moskowitz
Assistant Managing Editor

Clara Moskowitz is a science and space writer who joined the team in 2008 and served as Assistant Managing Editor from 2011 to 2013. Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She covers everything from astronomy to human spaceflight and once aced a NASTAR suborbital spaceflight training program for space missions. Clara is currently Associate Editor of Scientific American. To see her latest project is, follow Clara on Twitter.